For the longest time, ever since high school, I have been reading Homer’s Odyssey. This is something that has followed me from Undergrad all the way into my Graduate studies. But not too long ago it also occurred to me that I’ve been reading ODY-C for nearly three years now since it first came out. Sequart writer Ian Dawe also reviewed and summarized Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C run at the time, but there is one element that really fascinates me that I would like to focus on in this article: the precedent of the Sebex and their role in the universe of ODY-C.
Ian Dawe compares ODY-C to a story you might find in 2000 AD or The Ballad of Halo Jones. It’s fitting in a way considering how ODY-C itself is a gender-bent space fantasy version of The Odyssey that uses analogues to characters much in the way that Alan Moore has been creating literary analogues lately both in his Providence comics created with Jacen Burrows, and his novel Jerusalem: the latter of which has a rough female version of his character named Alma Warren. However, while I’ve also read The Ballad of Halo Jones and recognize why it would be used as an analogy to ODY-C based on its female lead and protagonist, I think there is something be said about the story being akin to the psychedelics and sensibilities of Barbarella, of which Matt Fraction and Christian Ward state as an influence, insanely woven together with Achaean storytelling over a backdrop akin to Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man.
I’ll admit, that is a lot to unpack. For me, it all began with the double spread in ODY-C issue #1. Aside from its galactic maps of equivalent ancient Achaean and Trojan lands made into space sectors and a large landscape of almost one hundred years of lush and colourful carnage, there is a chronological chart of events preceding the Troiian War. It is as convoluted as it sounds, complete with the fact that the analogue Greek gods in ODY-C seem to be mostly omnipotent and interdimensional female, but sometimes intersex beings when they want to be, or any sex and gender they desire at the time. Sometimes, and mostly. Zeus is referred to as “she,” sometimes “him-her” and at one point “him” — though whether this is on purpose or an error is another matter entirely.
But it is in the chronology that the concept of the Sebex is introduced. The Sebex are a third sex. They are created by the Titan goddess Promethene to take in ova and fertilize them to create more women, or more Sebex. The reason why this has happened is because in fear of her children rising against her, and those children of the Olympians – mortalkind – Zeus destroyed all men in a fit of rage: eliminating all births and leaving the universal population to gradually die out. It’s unclear as to whether or not humans exist in this universe, or if they are the only species but it seems as something like them is existent long with other beings whom the gods rule over beyond space and time. Yet whatever the case, men were utterly destroyed in the wider universe – for the most part – and the continuance of life looked grim for those who weren’t gods.
Now in the mythology of our world the Titan Prometheus took pity on a humanity of the Silver Age that no longer had the gentility of the Golden Age, depending on whether you read Hesiod or which other source or legend you might read, and stole the gift of fire from the gods for their sake. |At the same time, this can also be seen as the creation of another race of beings much like there is a successive race of humans in each Age of Hesiod’s Theogony: with the former ones either transcended or wiped out of existence. While Prometheus was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten out by birds and regenerated eternally, mankind gained the cursed jar of Pandora – the first woman – for using its stolen fire.
In ODY-C’s equivalent of the Theogony, the story is slightly different. The reader can piece this together from the Chronology of ODY-C #1 and Zeus’ own account at the beginning of Issue #2. The misfortunes of mortalkind seem to have only come from Zeus herself and it is Promethene, her daughter from an earlier generation, who uses divine wisdom gained from a lotus bled from her body in her imprisonment in Nyx or Night, to genetically engineer a new sex to allow women to continue procreating. Promethene is very specific in the role of this new sex. In order not to contradict the edict of her mother against the destruction of men, they are not men but intersex beings, and – apparently – they can only produce women and other Sebex.
Perhaps the Sebex are a “reverse-engineered” nod to the comedian Aristophanes’ myth of love depicted in Plato’s Symposium: except instead of the world starting with three genders are multiple-limbed giants split into two halves by Zeus’ wrath, this third gender is created in ODY-C to replace another that has been largely obliterated by another Zeus. As a result of following “the letter” but not “the spirit” of the law, Zeus doesn’t kill Promethene but gives the lotus she consumes an inspiration and mind-destroying dual element that both intoxicates and rots her psyche for the rest of time.
Sometimes the Chronology and the main storyline contradict each other, such as it stating that Promethene is dead and become a world, whereas in ODY-C #2 she still lives but what is particularly interesting are the Sebex themselves. Structurally speaking, they tend to be feminine but have some androgynous features but one trait that stands out the most is that their skin colour tends to be much brighter and more colourful than their female counterparts. From what I have seen in subsequent issues of ODY-C, Sebex are wives, consorts, Sebex-in-waiting, and concubines: though one of them, Pelenus the Sebex analogue to Peleus, seems to be a queen in her own right.
In all honesty, Sebex are hard to tell apart from women in the universe of ODY-C. Most of Christian Ward’s illustrations are psychedelic, colourful, and play with the female yonic form. As I’ve also stated before, it may also be that there are more than one humanoid species and colour and different physical aesthetics may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. Certainly they seem to have the same lifespan of their female counterparts if the fact that the same people fought in the Troiian War for almost a century has anything to do with it. There is also the question of what gender roles the Sebex possess. While they seem to have the personal pronoun of “she,” if we go by Odyssia’s concubine Ero as an example, it’s unclear as to whether or not they are given domestic duties while their wives and lovers indulge in homoerotic culture, politics, and war like their ancient Mediterranean male analogues.
Perhaps that is the point when it comes down to it. Maybe looking at the gender roles of Sebex in comparison and contrast to women in ODY-C is a false equivalency with those of our ancient world, or even a heterosocial perspective. It could be as crude as asking who takes the masculine or feminine role in an LGBTQ relationship. How can someone ask that in a space-faring society? Or in one where men are rare to non-existent? And, for that matter, what dynamics develop in a world between a female and another form of gender entirely? Are there any binary characteristics within it, and just how much does Matt Fraction and Christian Ward allow for ancient Western influence from the Homeric tradition, and what amount of it is something of their own creation?
At the same time, I am fascinated by the galactic social structures and cultures that have been created by this new cosmology. Yet while I want to know more about these elements of gender world-building, they are just backdrop to the story of Odyssia Witchjack coming home to her world of Ithicaa to see her Sebex wife Penelope and her son Telem.
And more questions are raised. If Sebex can only create other Sebex and women, how are some male children still born? Fortunately or unfortunately, and depending on your point of view, the Chronology explains that male children are still made through the machinations of the gods themselves. It is explained that He, the male analogue to Helen who is stolen from his wife Queen Ene – the equivalent to Menelaus – is Zeus’ son by virtue of Aphrodite making him male to “punish” Zeus for slighting her sister. According to the Chronology, He is the first man born in the main universe in ten thousand years. A similar reason is given for why Keles – this world’s Achilles – and Telem – Odysseus’ son Telemachus – are also made male: the latter being the result of Hera and Athena’s interference. Perhaps the potential demigod Aeolus’ existence, as he was introduced in Issues #4-5 along with Queen Gamem’s, the female analogue to Agamemnon, son Orestes at the end of Issue #12 can be explained in a similar fashion.
Suffice to say, it gets messy. In a lot of ways, these explanations in the Chronology – which you may not understand the first time around until you read more of the series – are kind of disappointing. I know before I reviewed the Chronology, I thought that the gods themselves by virtue of breeding with Sebex and even mortal women sometimes made male children, or perhaps Promethene wasn’t as perfect in her experiments as she would have liked. Perhaps the gods took on male forms at times and reproduced with biologically female partners and sometimes made men: though that would also have implications on the social order as, presumably, biological women in ODY-C wouldn’t be getting pregnant anymore due to the Sebex becoming the only ones that can fertilize ova and carry children.
In addition, there are more men out there too if you consider that there is a whole society of them – men and women – sealed away in the sector of Qaf due to their kings having angered Poseidon through the death of one of her myriad of children. Strangely, and the creators of the series make a note of this in the narrative of Issue #6, there are no Sebex in Qaf: hinting on the fact that this place was cursed by the gods before Zeus’ male purge.
This also isn’t even including the fact that it’s stated, quite clearly from the Chronology of Issue #1 and some of Issue #6 that He, the first man born in ten thousand millennia, had been used by his wife Ene as breeding stock: as “a legendary Bull that sired thousands of children – all female.” So by that reckoning, sentient beings in the ODY-C universe have had ten thousand millennia, barring whenever the gods feel like exercising their sex fluidity and ignoring Qaf, to do without men and even biological female pregnancy. Maybe Ene took “the Great Bull” He’s “seed of great wealth” and sold his sexual services – and sperm – to women of high rank and power throughout the cosmos. Then there is another matter that we encounter with Odyssia.
Would Odyssia even have straight female crew members, being queer by virtue of somehow being some of the only heterosexual women to exist to sacrifice to Aeolus in Issue #4 so she and the rest of her crew could escape him? Perhaps they would remember what men looked like through their advanced technological records, but the inclusion of He, and then Telem, Orestes, and not to even mention Keles, would definitely affect their social order in some way.
And we are not even going into the fact that Zeus was originally terrified of a male child of divine descent, which most heroes from this universe and our own mythological one actually are, and then seems to ignore all these others sprouting up like scattered Spartoi dragon-tooth soldiers. In fact, according to an account in our reality’s Greek mythology Zeus, in an attempt to avert a fate in which he would copulate with Thetis and create the child that would overthrow him much like he did his own father Kronos, had Aphrodite make the nymph Thetis fall in love with the mortal king Peleus to create the demigod Achilles instead.
However, in ODY-C more attention is brought to the fact that most mortals are the descendants, through inter-breeding or otherwise, of the Olympians, and it is entirely possible that the prophecy – which also exists in that reality and was revealed to Zeus – was the very reason why she attempted to destroy all men in the first place and may well have engineered the entire Troiian War to make sure that Keles, as what could have been one of the few warrior males left in existence, didn’t survive – in fact, so far in the series we don’t even see him, Issue #1 starting off with him seemingly having died before the start of the comic’s sequential narrative much – thinking about how she killed her own father and how the universe loves its dramatic cycles. And these possible circumstances and rationales may well have been what led to that place where the Sebex needed to be created at all: by Promethene or fate itself.
I would definitely like to see more on how the mainline society of this universe works with the Sebex and how that has changed their civilization over time. But I also have to remember that this may not be the story that Matt Fraction and Christian Ward want to tell. Much of it is centred around the manipulations of the gods who speak outside of Fraction’s “dummy hexameter” of language and Ward’s captions, with Odyssia and others as the pieces in their game. But will Odyssia and the mortals have some role in this? Will the power of stories and the subversion of old binaries and understandings change the universe in ways that the gods can’t foresee. Are we going to see some moira or fate come to the fore to which even the gods are subject?
I feel like there is more to the Sebex. At one point in Issue #10 of ODY-C, Proteus confronts Ene and tells her that the gods are mirrors to mortals. The supposedly mad god, in a grisly homage to the chess pieces of the gods in the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, also creates a duplicate of Ene from the latter’s severed thigh bone (after making her consume her own flesh and blood Thyestes-style). This too is a call back to the ancient story of a Cloud-Helen that had been created by the gods to cause the Trojan War while the real one was hidden in Egypt where the king later travels. In contrast, Proteus sends Cloud-Ene, this simulacrum of a woman, back to her empire so that no one will come looking for her at all. It is an interesting parallel, especially given that Qaf is a One Thousand and One Nights version of Egypt and that He is left there by Ene in Issue #6 while she attempts to escape that area of space. There is also the fact that Proteus is the second exile deity we see creating life: the first one being Promethene herself.
Clouds and mirrors. Clouds exist in the background. They are visible, seemingly intangible and people make them into different shapes in their mind’s eye. Mirrors reflect who people are: even and especially if they are distorted large. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own once said that women are perceived to possess the power and purpose to make men twice as greater than they actually are. But what happens when you, for the most part, take men out of that dynamic? What happens when there are only women and a third gender?
There may not be much about the Sebex, or even a clear central Sebex character, but perhaps the fact that they were also made by a goddess, are intersex – albeit in a fixed state – like all the gods themselves, that they were created only when Zeus destroyed most men, and that the gods themselves may not have always consistently possessed feminine characteristics but do so to relate to the world which they made says something about the nature of their universe. Perhaps, for a group of people who are behind the scenes, but almost always present, there might be more yet to be seen from the Sebex and their relationships in Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s ODY-C.